System vs. Setting in Game Design

One of the biggest arguments I’ve heard over the past, few years is, “Does system matter more than setting?”

The answer is, “Both do.”

Here’s why:

Game mechanics, for any platform (PC, video, tabletop or card game) handles the pacing of the game, attributing to its mood or what I call “game aura.” If you’re creating a “fast-paced zombie hunting game” for example, your mechanics should facilitate that feel. A good example of relevant mechanics is the card game Gloom, which was produced by Atlas Games. In this game, your goal is to make your “family” as miserable as possible. Whoever dies first, in the most horrific way possible, wins. Now, this game may sound truly terrifying but the art and the writing of the game give it an Edward Gorey-like feel, building the setting.

The mechanics are really inventive; you have see-through cards with points that stack on top of one another. In this way, the mechanics allow you to “make” your family member miserable by directly placing modifiers on top of your character. Hence, the mood is not detracted and the overall feel of the game remains intact.

Another good example of mechanics is the exceedingly popular Star Wars: Legos series. Star Wars, a science fantasy setting, is taken to a humorous level by playing off of the Legos setting. The mechanics are simple because they needed to be; who wants to “build” characters through stats if you’re playing Legos?

“New” game mechanics from upcoming or independent publishers are not as integrated with their setting, in many cases, because game designers often strip out the system to playtest it and make sure the system works. If your system has a “theme,” (i.e. fast-paced, larger-than-life), then this can be a good idea. If it doesn’t, you may want to “test” different parts of your game with the mechanics to ensure that the pacing and flow is not interrupted by say, your vampire needing to feed before making it through your next scene (Bloodrayne).

So if you are working on game mechanics, there are really two questions that are important for you to ask: One, does this system work with the game I’m designing and two, have I tested it in all of its forms to ensure it doesn’t interrupt the flow of the game.

Monica Valentinelli is a writer, editor, and game developer. Her portfolio includes stories, games, comics, essays, and pop culture books.

In addition to her own worlds, she has worked on a number of different properties including Firefly, Vampire: the Masquerade, Shadowrun, Hunter: the Vigil, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, and Robert E. Howard’s Conan.

Looking for Monica’s books and games that are still in print? Visit Monica Valentinelli on Amazon’s Author Central or a bookstore and game store near you.

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